Meaty Mountain

Patrick Williamson looks at one of the the newest and most controversial forms of meat production.

In many of our diets, meat in its various forms plays a central role, often acting as the focal point of a meal. In the UK the average person consumes 86 kg of meat a year, but this meaty mountain is dwarfed by comparison with our U.S American cousins, who on average devour 125 kg of meat a year. Though many people opt to lead a vegetarian lifestyle due to religious beliefs or ethical considerations of animal welfare, there are other negative implications of society’s carnivorous ways. Car exhaust fumes and large factories may be more strongly associated with the cause of global warming than meat produce, but a report published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) showed that between 14% and 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to meat production. This is not only as a result of the animal’s natural “exhaust” fumes (widely considered as a major source of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas), but also due to the deforestation necessary to create enough open space to intensively farm livestock. The ever increasing global population also poses new challenges such as water shortages and overcrowding due to lack of space. These issues are further deepened by intensive livestock farming. There is, however, a new line of research which promises to help alleviate the strain that meat production poses on the environment. Even better, it allows consumption of meat without the necessity of slaughtering animals.

The solution may seem closer to science fiction than actual science. In simple terms it can be called laboratory-grown meat. This is not referring to vegetarian meat substitutes such as Quorn, which is obtained from a type of fungus, but rather to a product which is, compositionally, identical to natural meat. This lab-grown meat is made up of the very same cells that are found in conventional meat, and is produced by a process referred to as bioprinting. The first step involves the biopsy of an animal; a tissue sample is removed from the animal to obtain cells known as stem cells. These cells (more commonly associated with cancer treatment than meat production) are special in that they can, given the correct stimulus, develop into any type of cell found in the host’s body. This is known as differentiation. The cells are allowed to mature and multiply. It is in the next step that the name bioprinting is earned. Thousands of living cells are combined into “bioink” and a 3D-printer is used to generate the desired shape. 3D-printing is a process which has revolutionised printing and works by layering liquid material, which is  immediately solidified, to build up a three dimensional object. Once printed, the cells naturally fuse to form tissue.  Much of this technology was first pioneered for use in medicine; this type of tissue engineering is considered a potential source of organs for transplants as well as biological models on which to conduct drug tests. Gabor Forgacs, co-founder of the company Modern Meadows, a tissue engineering company dedicated to creating “in vitro” meat (or test tube meat to you and me), was formerly heavily involved in medical research. During this time he realised the potential of using this existing technology to revolutionise the food market. At a conference in 2012, Forgacs ate a pork chop on stage. This pork chop was entirely synthesized using the methods described above. Though primarily a PR stunt to advertise his company, it demonstrates how far this technology has come towards offering a sustainable solution to the global meat-problem.

Despite this impressive display, Forgacs is realistic about the difficulties surrounding the commercialisation of tissue engineered meat products. The notion that natural is better than synthetic, despite environmental and sociological implications, is one that is widespread when it comes to food. As a result, a study conducted by Modern Meadows found that only 40% of the people questioned would be comfortable with even trying their synthetic meat. In the meantime Modern Meadows intend on focussing first on another, slightly less controversial animal product; leather. Synthetic leather is an idea that most people are comfortable with. The benefit of the tissue engineering approach is that the leather would be biological; that is to say it would be the same material as leather won by slaughtering animals, without the necessity of bloodshed. Bioengineered leather has other practical advantages over natural leather, other than animal welfare aspects. Bioprinted cow-skin tissue only requires a condensed tanning process, alleviating the need to use many of the toxic chemicals required for the tanning of natural leather. Equally, as the tissues are grown in a lab and not in a living animal, the ethical connotations of genetic engineering are significantly less severe; allowing for the possibility of fine-tuning the properties of the leather produced. A batch of synthetic leather could, for example, be made to be more durable or elastic. Skin tissue is, by nature, significantly less complex in its makeup than meat, and as a result its large scale production should avoid many of the engineering challenges related to bioprinting meat products.

In spite of the current scepticism towards tissue engineered meat products, there is a continual drive to further the technology required to synthesize entire cuts of meat from stem cells. Currently producing a burger from stem cells would cost around ?200,000, but as the technology advances, the price of production is expected to drop drastically. By the time this production method becomes commercially viable, the common opinion may well have drifted to allow for this more carbon neutral, space efficient method of meat production to ensure that the slaughtering of live animals for food becomes a habit of the past. As Sir Winston Churchill once said “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Perhaps, in a not too distance future his prophetic suggestion will become common place. After all, if we consider the technology to be good enough to replace our own organs, then maybe it will suffice as a food source too.


Patrick Williamson


Image by Bollops